Baker rolls out first steps to reforming child welfare agency

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BOSTON – Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday took the first steps toward reforming the troubled Department of Children and Families with measures to improve client-tracking procedures and to ensure that social workers don’t miss warning signs of abuse or neglect.

Baker’s actions came several months after the body of Bella Bond, a toddler, was found on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. An independent probe later faulted the child welfare agency for failing to help the little girl in 2013.

Through negotiations with the Service Employees International Union Local 509, which represents about 2,900 social workers, supervisors and investigators at the agency, administration policymakers reworked intake procedures and put in place a supervision plan to ensure that cases that require review at a higher level are given that attention promptly.

“I know that to many people an intake policy that hasn’t been updated in 20 years and a supervisory policy that’s never been in place sounds pretty wonky,” Baker said. “Part of the reason why these matter so much is because they provide guidance and a constant source of feedback between the folks on the ground, area and regional managers, and the central office team with respect to what’s actually happening.”

Among the intake procedure changes are:

– A requirement that non-emergency reports of abuse or neglect be reviewed in one business day rather than three, as had been required;

– A mandated review of all information about the child and caregiver’s prior involvement with the agency;

– A requirement that the department request police response records involving the residence of any child reported as abused or neglected;

– The introduction of screening teams of social workers, supervisors and managers in all 29 area offices to review new reports of abuse in open cases, and investigate reports of three or more incidents in one year and other reports indicating elevated concern.

“For years, front line social workers, investigators and supervisors have pushed for true reform at the Department of Children and Families, for changes that would bring about a more common-sense approach for our child protection efforts,” said Peter MacKinnon, a Local 509 official. “The completion of these critical policies and reforms marks an important first step toward accomplishing these goals and represents a major milestone for our agency as well.”

The supervisory policy, which agency Commissioner Linda Spears said had been negotiated in the past but never agreed to or implemented, will require that every case be discussed at least once a month to promote collaborative case management.

The policy also clarifies circumstances that require agency supervisors to consult with clinical specialists, lawyers or agency managers to review complex cases.

“With these policies, we are giving our workers a standardized playbook for case practice, decision-making and oversight,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said. “Intake will be faster and more consistent, and there will be collaboration on cases with supervisors and managers so cases do not fall through the cracks.”

The new policies will take full effect on Feb. 1, Sudders said. In the meantime, the department will begin updating its computer systems and training employees in the new policies.

In addition to Bella Bond’s death, several high-profile cases have put the agency under scrutiny. Those include the 2013 disappearance of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose body was later found along a highway in Sterling, a 2-year-old girl who died this summer in foster care in Auburn and the case of a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who fell into a coma after he was allegedly abused and starved by his father.

Baker, Sudders, Spears and MacKinnon all referred to the new policies announced Tuesday as the “first step” in addressing the issues at the agency. With more policy reforms planned for March, Baker said he is confident that the department will improve its performance and experience fewer tragedies.

“I believe that if we do this well, and we need to do it well … if we do the work associated with following through and delivering on this, I do believe we will do a better job as a commonwealth at providing the kind of protection and support for these kids and their families that they deserve,” he said. “And I do believe that will have an impact in a positive way on tragedies.”

Written by Colin A. Young